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( (Alarm and despondency still misty)
"The first year of the third millennium is ending," says a senior participant, "leaving us with memories of several shocking and unprecedented events in the world." After the terror attacks on the United States on September 11, the world economy became shadowy. Particularly in Japan, the situation is worse. The country suffers a record high unemployment rate, 5.5 percent in November. Banks haven't finished their disposal of bad loans. The government must now tighten its budget in the public investment as it has already issued too many government bonds. The central and local governments together owe big money to bond holders, 694 trillion yen, namely about 1.4 times the nation's GDP. "Economists are worrying about possible bond dystopia in Japan's future," says a middle-aged member, "the bond rating has already dropped to the lowest among the G-7 countries." The government has projected zero growth at the best in the country's GDP next year. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has spent his eight-month time since he turned up in leading the country in April. So far, he keeps a high public support although the nation's economy is still slowing down. "People need to see a clear picture of developing society," a lady says, "otherwise, they are unable to plan their life design for the future." Younger people are concerned about social security and pension systems which look very much vulnerable these days. "Koizumi cabinet must first clear up these problems triggering social unrest among the public," says a senior member, "at the same time, he shouldn't loosen the reins of power in pushing through his reform programs in various sectors." Let's wish a Happy New Year!
(New Year's greeting cards written by hand)
"Quite many people write a letter on word processors these days," says a senior participant, "but soon people will become happy receiving letters written by hand." Most Japanese are now busy in writing a bunch of New Year greeting cards at home. Today, majority of people can operate a word processor. "It's far quicker writing New Year cards on machines than by hand," a middle-aged member says, "we can't quit such a custom anymore." Furthermore, younger people will not print a greeting card into print in future. They just send it via the Internet to the screen of the addressee. "Electronic greeting cards, with animation and music, have become familiar," says one lady, "but I think we will be happier receiving a handwritten card." In days of information technology, children do not practice handwriting so much. Outside school, they come across fewer occasions to write something by hand except the address and name. "I think handwriting will eventually become one of hobbies among people like calligraphy," says a senior member, "and well-seasoned guys there will be called such an artist somebody like working at the scriptorium to exactly duplicate Biblical text by hand." Up to 40 years ago, people used a writing brush in Japan to make out a document such as their resume. There were many calligrapher's offices near the city government for those who were not enough literate to write a document text to be submitted. Then, brush-written documents made way rapidly for pen-written documents. "Today, we don't see any document text written with a brush," says a lady, "it has totally become the art of calligraphy." Only, Imperial Poetry Reading, Emperor's New Year tanka contest, still asks for brush-written applications. "Shortly, writing in pen and ink will also become the art of calligraphy in Japan," a senior participant says, "and people will become more pleased receiving a handwritten letter than the one written on word processors." The average level of the manual skill of mankind will be degraded gradually.
(Investment trust, MMF, gets under par)
"Last Friday, my wife almost panicked," says a senior participant, "as she was told over the phone by a stock picker that price of Nikko's MMF was dropping at speed." She sold it immediately, however, at a displeasing price, 4 percent short of the capital. The MMF (money management fund) was popular for its reliability among the retail investor. For more than 20 years, it had never cut its face value on the transaction. People, therefore, took it almost a capital-safe investment. But this is no more the case today. The collapse of American big energy company Enron Corp., almost not known to Japanese general investors, suddenly affected the price of Nikko MMF very much negatively. Enron had been regarded one of the most promising world enterprises. Nikko and other security corporations included positively the Enron's shares in their portfolio of the investment trust. "Two weeks ago, another broker's investment trust also became under par," says a middle-aged member, "because of the collapse of Mycal, a big national chain-retailer." In the ailing Japanese financial market, we should be prepared to accept anything unprecedented. "Next year, the deposit payoff system revives in April after the 6-year moratorium," says the senior member, "we must be careful about money at our savings account." If a bank goes bankrupt, its clients are only guaranteed up to 10 million yen out of the individual balance at the savings account. And today, even a statusy bank could collapse suddenly. Perhaps, we should go to the postal savings, since we know, if the postal savings even collapse, it must be a nationwide catastrophe and the last event that should take place.
(After-hours' get-together on expense account)
"Maybe, we had good old days," says a senior participant, "almost every evening after hours, we office colleagues got together for a dinner or playing mahjong, quite often on expense account." Companies believed in those days such after-hours activities would promote communication, teamwork and morale among workers. And people tried to involve those wining and dining members from other companies who could foot the bill on entertainment and social expenses. "Today, we seldom join the workmate in the evening activity," says a young participant, "companies don't allow any longer bosses to invite their subordinates on expense account in order to only lift the feeling of unity in the workplace." In the present egalitarian society, company bosses are not remunerated enough to cover such spending to entertain their rank-and-file subordinates at their own expense. Younger people think such an after-hours get-together may be helpful for companies to know how employees see the organization they belong to. "At a formal meeting, people rarely say their mind," says one lady, "but at a casual meeting in the evening, they may throw in some bottom-line remarks." Therefore, occasionally, companies are worth paying such expenses, because it is clear that both bosses and subordinates are reluctant to hold an after-hours program voluntarily at their own expense. "Of course," says a middle-aged member, "the old style cozy get-together, having taken place every evening for participants just to eliminate stress of the day, shouldn't be revived." Younger generation must spend after-hours time and effort for further self-enlightenment, or for recreational purposes, rather than being involved at all hours in activities with office colleagues.
(Younger generation, self-centered)
"It's a worn-out phrase among people since the era of Egyptian dynasties," says a middle-aged participant, "that youth of today behave much differently from the older generation." A survey recently conducted by the Cabinet Office on the generation gap came out with this old cliche not surprisingly, say, youth today are self-centered. Although it is said that such a remark must be alive and well between generations, we can point out several scenes where youth today present a behavioral shift from the one older generations considered to be normal. "Company outing, for example, is today organized in line with the advise of younger employees," says one lady, "and it is not any more a company-wide group tour, but offers a number of optional programs up to the individual taste." It is definitely not the case any longer that, at the dinner party of a company outing, woman employees are forced to be placed next to the boss and male colleagues, to serve sake and to please them with some coquettish chatting. The survey also says that younger people generally dislike donating blood or money, compared to those surveyed five years ago. "I doubt it's a real trend," says a young lady, "five years ago, because of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, younger people were very much motivated to extend their support to the victim. They were in general positive in donating blood or money." Aversion to marriage somehow prevailed among younger people may be attributed to the current social unrest expressed eloquently by the sudden collapse of statusy companies, high unemployment rate and unclear vision on the pension system and social security. Smaller number of younger people think it is natural for sons and daughters to take care of aged parents. "You see, today, the aged are mostly enjoying an affluent lifestyle," says a senior member, "the biggest portion of the financial assets of Japanese households, estimated at 1.4 quadrillion yen, is owned by the elderly." So, it does not make sense that the aged ask what younger people can do for the aged, but they should ask what the aged can do for younger people.
(Koizumi reform seems short-breathed)
"I doubt if Koizumi could achieve any of his promised items of crusade," says a senior participant, "his recent compromise on the nation's road construction policy with the lobbying Liveral Democratic Party politicians disappointed me." Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi could not stick to his guns. He agreed to set up a third-party body that must come out with a definite proposal on the future road construction program and possible privatization of four public highway corporations. "Today, we are paying about four yen on each one-kilometer drive as the gasoline tax," the senior member says, "and, according to law, the collected tax, together with the automobile tonnage tax, is specifically spent for building another highway whether it is really needed or not." Most people do not feel Japan needs further construction of highways. Politicians with close ties with the construction industry are still pushing the traditional manner of proposing new highways advocating they are wished by the respective local constituencies. "In the United States and Europe, we rarely see tollways," says a young man, "Japan should also achieve the original promise to make its highways toll-free after a 30-year period of toll service." In other scenes, Koizumi cabinet also faces problems in pushing through its reform plans. Out of 14 major banks, only one or two will be able to show a positive bottomline at the end of the current business term. They are drastically trying to get rid of the bad debt that has been affecting their operations for a very long period. "Here again, some conservative politicians are hinting already at possible postponement of the scheduled lifting in next April of the moratorium on a deposit payoff system," says a middle-aged participant, "if the second-time postponement takes place, Japan would lose credibility in the world financial market." Japanese people seem to be ready to accept anything drastic in the present ailing society. Next several months, Koizumi will be watched by the public how he performs with his promised crusade.
(Kenaf not always environmentally friendly)
"Kenaf is talked often these days as the plant that absorbs carbon dioxide actively from the air," says a senior member, "but the trick is not an easy one." Kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus) is a fast-growing plant widely bred in Southeast Asia, China, Africa, Caribbean countries and the southern United States. Kenaf is used as fiber for the paper industry. It is drawing the attention of Japanese environmentalists as replacement of pulpwood vastly consumed in papermaking. Kenaf is also becoming popular as an indoor plant because it is said to purify the atmosphere of the room. "Our continuing debate over how to fight global warming often comes across an option that looks plausible," says the senior participant, "and today, in many primary schools, kenaf is grown for educational purposes in a corner of the schoolyard." Students learn how quickly the kenaf grows. Then, they experience a kenaf harvest and papermaking. And they are taught how this could contribute to avoid deforestation in the precious rainforests in the world that majorly absorb carbon dioxide from the air and produce oxigen for animal life. "But if you still burn the used paper made even from the kenaf," he says, "you are releasing carbon dioxide again in the air." Because of its fast growing, kenaf absorbs a large amount of carbon dioxide, but at the same time, it takes away rapidly the nutriment from soil. The field could not be with rich soil any longer after kenaf. "This means you need more chemical fertilizer for the next upland farming," says another participant, "since nature takes years to reproduce the soil suitable for another cropping." The subject of carbon dioxide fixation is not an easy one. Unless we shrink ourselves from luxuries of civilization, we will not be able to overcome any of our environmental problems.
Goodwill interpreters enjoy World Cup soccer finals)
"Because of a very high demand, I couldn't buy any ticket for games of the 2002 World Cup soccer finals in Japan," says a middle-aged participant, "but I've found a way to see the game as a language volunteer." He says he has been already registered as one of volunteers to assist linguistically foreign visitors to the game. However, such goodwill interpreters are not always possible to enter the soccer stadium while a game is on. Some must work outside the stadium as guides for visitors or as attendants at parking lots. "Just recently, we had an orientation meeting at the newly inaugurated Kobe stadium," he says, "and fortunately, I would be appointed to a member of the security team that must look after people inside the stadium." After the terrorist attacks on the United States two months ago, it becomes the matter of Japan's serious concern how such places where many people gather could be protected from potential attacks. Therefore, a large number of those language volunteers are shifted to security activities from traditional acts of a simple guide. "I will be in teamwork with some professional security guards at spectators' seats in the soccer field," says the middle-aged member, "and if nothing happens, I can enjoy the game." And he further says, "If something scary happens, I'll run away more quickly than anybody else from the site as I know exactly the nearest exit of the stadium." The Kobe soccer stadium having capacity of 43,000 spectators has been newly build on the seaside of the city. The big number of visitors expected are carried mostly by the subway from Sannomiya which has been also inaugurated just recently. "On participating in the last orientation get-together, we could walk in the brand new pitch of the Kobe soccer field," he says, "and it was exciting we could look up the empty spectators' stands surrounding us there." The full-day volunteer activity pays him only a phonecard. Through such an activity, however, he says, he could establish new contacts with people from other businesses. He would otherwise be buried under daily routines in the narrow society where he lives.
(Work sharing successful in Netherlands)
"The work sharing system has permeated very well the job market of Holland," says a senior participant, "since it was introduced in 1983." Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), the nation's largest labor organization, is looking at the introduction of a work-sharing system to help ease rapidly worsening unemployment problems. Unemployment in Japan rose to 5.3% in September, another record high. And there is little short term prospect of a recovery. "Under the pressing circumstances, labor unions place higher priority on job security than their conventional demand for higher wages," says a middle-aged member, "introduction of a work-sharing system is bound to be accompanied by reduced wages." Now, some of Japan's biggest corporate names plunged into the red for the half year ending September. There will be further more jobless people in the street as companies are competing to reduce the number of employees. "The number of part-timers drastically increased these years," says one lady, "they are nearly 5 percent of the overall workforce in the country." Most of such part-timers are looking for a full-time job. But not so many jobs are available for them. "In Holland, 40 percent of the nation's workforce are part-timers," says a senior member, "and they are treated equally with permanent staff in terms of hourly rate, health insurance and other fringe benefits." The work sharing system works here perfectly. In Holland, the jobless rate has dramatically dropped from above 10 percent ten years ago to about 2 percent today. "I don't like such ailing bankers are still paying their employees high-level wages and bonuses," says a middle-aged participant, "while they were injected with taxpayer's money." Workers should be remunerated fairly on the basis of job content and achievement whether they are a part-timer or a full-timer. Health insurance and pension systems must be also considered carefully for part-timers. It looks the labor market is shifting to involve more part-time jobs. But, at the moment, this creates a widened gap in remuneration between part-timers and full-timers. It means the status of full-timer is getting vulnerable as long as they keep working in a low level. They could be easily replaced by part-timers. "In Kansai, the jobless rate is now 6.6 percent," says one lady, "far above the national average level." Work sharing must be studied more radically in the district.
(Ichiro ends his successful first year)
"Despite the fact that there were many people one year ago who doubted Ichiro's capability in the MLB," says a senior participant, "he's done far better than his demanded contribution to the Seattle Mariners." Ichiro Suzuki won the championship for batting and stolen bases in the American League. In face of the very tough season first time in the United States with a large number of annual games and hardship of traveling long distance in the huge country, Ichiro could survive all such challenging barriers and even made several new records for a rookie MLB player. Mariners achieved the highest attendance to its ball games in this season. "Ichiro Suzuki together with the reliable closer, Kazuhiro Sasaki," says a middle-aged member, "made a big contribution to the successful business of the team." These Japanese MLB players also drew attention at home in Japan. The number of people watching MLB games on the local TV has increased. "On the other hand, the viewer rate for the local professional baseball has dropped substantially," says another gentleman, "the last games, Japan Championship Series, between Yakult Swallows and Kintetsu Buffaloes, for example, showed a record low audience rate." The stage of baseball has shifted to the United States. Unless the local baseball organization streamlines its manners of operation, more Japanese players will join the MLB and American games will be further spotlighted and take more profit from Japanese baseball nuts. "It's reasonable that Ichiro refused cordially to be presented the People's Honor Award," says one lady, "saying I'm still too young for the award." Ichiro said to the media that he would be happy to be presented the award if he could still deserve it on his retiring. In fact, Ichiro, being 28, is not too young as recipient. There are already some at his age to be presented the award. Naoko Takahashi , the last marathon winner at the Sydney Olympics, for example, took the same medal at her age 28. "But, I don't know why people feel a certain sense of cleanness," says a senior person, "when we come across such a refusal story." There are occasionally people who refuse to be presented honorable prizes such as the Order of Culture, even Nobel prize. Are we just praising those being indifferent to gain? Or, are we simply envious of such winners?
(Newborn's first visit to shrine)
"Last Sunday, it was a white day on the augural calendar and we had just a prosperous weather for our newborn grandchild to visit first time the local shrine," says a senior participant, "there were so many newborn babies at the shrine for the same important family event." It is a ritual ceremony, called Omiyamairi, for the one-month-old newborn to visit a shrine first time for purification by the Shinto priest. Of course, the baby is accompanied by the parents, two couples of the grandparents and other relatives, all dressed up formally and nicely. "In fact, this is an event for those family members accompanying the baby," he says, "and the one-month-old baby in somebody's arms is just sleeping all the time." On each purification shift, with eleven newborns held by grandmothers and respective relatives, the shrine's main pavilion where the Sinto priest should conduct the ritual ceremony packed to capacity. The purification ceremony takes about 15 minutes. And the price varies from 5,000 to 10,000 yen depending on the quality of the hospitality gift given by the shrine to the baby. "After the shrine visit, we set up the party at our house for those gathered that day," says the senior member, "from time to time, our baby boy cried for milk, but he was almost sleeping otherwise." "We did the same some months ago," says one lady, "in our case, the Shinto priest wrote a Chinese character with the red-ink brush on the baby's forehead at the purification ceremony, the letter 'Dai (big)' for boys and 'Sho (small)' for girls." This ritual writing by the Shinto priest attempts to keep children off evil spirits. Apparently some shrines have stopped it because young mothers do not like their babies to be blotted out. "It's also interesting to observe those struggling grandmothers from either family wishing to hold the baby in arms," says another member, "and often, the mother's family win such battles." It looks the matrilineal society is developing today among younger generations. The married couple and children more often visit the wife's family. "So, if you have only sons like myself," says a middle-aged participant, "you'll have less opportunities to communicate with your grandchildren." Boys rarely live with their own parents these days. But daughters increasingly live together in their parents' home. "Anyway, when I saw so many newborn babies at the shrine," says the senior man, "I almost forgot the country had been said to suffer an aging society."
Airlines are suffering a dramatic fall in passenger numbers in the wake of the terror attacks on the United States. "Last Tuesday, Swissair suddenly collapsed," says a senior member, "two jumbo aircraft's were seized at Heathrow Airport by the creditor because the ran out of money for the landing fee and refueling." The Swiss government has meantime given Swissair a 35-billion-yen lifeline so it can resume flights until the end of the month. Swissair's entire fleet has been grounded since Tuesday. Meanwhile, Belgian airline Sabena, part-owned by Swissair, filed for bankruptcy on Wednesday. "It was a bad acquisition Swissair made over Sabena some years ago," says another senior member, "I remember, in those days, people often joked about the Belgium airlines as Such A Bad Economy Never Again." The collapse of Swissair could be good news for passengers as it would force most airlines to rethink their strategy and cut prices. There is simply no way in a private sector industry that they can sit back and follow a policy which the national carrier Swissair has been doing for the past several years. Since the terror attacks on September 11, more than 100,000 job losses have been announced by the world airlines. "At the same time, the case impressed me," says a participant, "how such an ailing company could be given up hardheartedly by banks although Switzerland is known as the world wealthiest country." This very much contrasts Japan's traditional manners dealing with those ailing companies for many years without taking any drastic measures. Japanese banks were optimistic about their clients for getting through their financial problems and kept helping them least worrying about the swelling bad loans. "And those investors in Switzerland neither panic nor become hysteric on the subject," says a middle-aged participant, "they accept the damage they got from the event in a businesslike manner." People don't cry over spilt milk. They will bounce back and visit another game room.
"Childbirth by a postmenopausal woman should be restricted," says a middle-aged participant, "we are not allowed to defy nature." Two months ago, a 60-year-old woman successfully gave birth in Tokyo and is believed to be the oldest woman to give birth in Japan. In fact, she underwent in vitro fertilization in the United States using her husband's sperm and a young Asian donor's ova. "I think it's not a bad idea," says one lady, "if an aged woman still wishes to give birth and she believes she's able to conduct such challenging labor." Maybe, they are already too old for child rearing. But those aged mothers can still get help from other people and public facilities. "I also plan childbirth myself in a bit later life," says a young lady, "because I hear those babies born of an aged woman have higher probability becoming genius." "There's no statistical evidence that old mothers are always with babies showing a high IQ," says one gentleman, "and, even though the theory is correct, we don't know whether it's because of the ovum of an aged woman, because of the prenatal period in the old mother's uterus or because of the postnatal growth period surrounded by aged parents and brothers and sisters all senior to the child." Some say the old woman just played a role of surrogate birth. She acted as an artificial incubator in a sense. "But in this particular case, the woman really wanted to have a child that could be at least biologically connected with her husband," one lady says, "I think we cannot deny the subject simply because of her age." At present, stories about artificial insemination appear so often on the media. However, the issue is very much individual and cannot be easily generalized. "I think we should follow the fundamental law of nature," says a young woman, "one of my friends, for example, has lost her opportunity of giving birth." The woman thought she could have a baby anytime and continued enjoying her life without children. But when she decided to have one, she was told by doctors she'd been too late physically.
(More men commit suicide than women)
"I think men are much more fragile than women," says one young lady, "they wilt under pressure and take their own lives so easily." Of last year's 32,000 suicides in Japan, 70 percent were committed by men. And those 100,000 breadwinners in their 30-50s who had walked out on their families last year were almost all men. "This means women don't feel their sense of shame," says a middle-aged member, "while men are too proud of being the breadwinner for family members." Men wish to be a winner in life and in any battle. Their concept of value in life looks very much different from women's. "I was shocked when I heard the story that three self-employed workers had taken their lives together at a hotel in Tokyo," says a young lady, "I couldn't understand the reason why they had to kill themselves together." These people depended on each other in their business activities. Their performance became very bad due to the long-lasting recession. And they all were having a rough time with debts. They decided finally to clear off their debts by life insurance. Suicides attempted to receive the insurance are increasing these years. "It's the reflection of a male-dominated society," says a senior participant, "in a sense, men are regarded more valuable as insurable life than women." As we see an increasing number of those working women who earn money more than the average man does, suicides committed by women will also increase in future. "No, women are tough by nature," says one lady, "they will never give up their battle." Some say there are not so many cases that a businesswoman could drive her company extremely successful. "Women never do at the risk of losing their lives," says a middle-aged member, "they are often irrational, less flexible and always fundamental ."
(90 percent American support military actions)
"I think the current frenzied support by American public for the President Bush's leadership in handling terrorism wouldn't last long," says a young participant, "if the battle against the terrorist groups hiding in some Islamic countries becomes tough and takes place too long." According to the pollsters, nine out of 10 Americans approve of the way Bush responded to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11. And they mostly expect the fight against the attackers to last for over a year. "It's interesting to see how Americans are so smartly united," says one lady, "I can imagine how they were united just 60 years ago on the occasion of Pearl Harbor." This time, they took it more than Pearl Harbor. They must have felt their sense of crisis as their symbolic headquarters were exactly hit. "But, I think, they are not guys any longer 60 years ago," says a senior member, "Vietnam War is an important lesson to them." Gulf War and PKF activities in Balkan and some African countries didn't result in any ideal outcomes. Americans will have to answer their own questions why they are attacked so often by terrorists,whether they should lead the international community in the present manner that pushes an extreme capitalism and free-market economy everywhere. "And the American media runs still with good sense," says a middle-aged participant, "for instance, the New York Times recently printed the full-page ad of Yoko Ono only reading an eight-word phrase from 'Imagine' an antiwar song by John Lennon." The U.S. media is also concerned about the country's disclosure of the convincing evidences, for Osama bin Laden having masterminded the terror attacks, that must justify Bush's planned military actions against the al Qaeda and its sponsoring countries. "The U.S. government will sooner or later show such evidences to the international community," says one lady, "by the time they do it, Japanese government shouldn't run too quick." Japan should not be involved unjustly in struggles between two civilizations, Crusades vs. Jihadi. Japan must extend its constructive assistance to solve such potential international conflicts.
(Would it be a dream come true?)
"If I hit a 9 billion yen lottery jackpot," says a young participant, "I would donate it all to the poor." Every participant says the promise this young man has just made does not make sense since he is confident enough he never hits such a prize and, furthermore, he seldom buys the lottery ticket. Just recently in the United States, there were four lucky lottery winners, each receiving about $75 million. The last Powerball jackpot is the third-biggest lottery prize in the States. "In Japan," a middle-aged gentleman questions, "why is the lottery jackpot staying with small prizes, being the maximum 150 million yen?" Each seasonal lottery issued in Japan achieves sales with 120 billion yen. It is possible, therefore, to pay a 50 billion yen jackpot for example. "Japan doesn't like the 'winner-takes-all' concept," says one lady, "people often hesitate to outstand extremely among others." So, many ticket holders get some small prizes. The country provides no gaming rooms for gamblers. Our lock-step mentality might have come from the typical agrarian culture. "Several times, I bought the soccer lottery," says a young lady, "but I've given up buying the ticket because the system is complicated and I could never win any prize." Sales of lotteries including the newly introduced soccer betting are dropping in Japan these days. The central and local government will try to attract people towards their lotteries by gradually increasing the amount of the maximum jackpot. The country is also inviting people to the stock market, the main gaming room, that is deadly in need of their idling assets amounting to 1.4 quadrillion yen. "Last week, I bought 10 tickets of the Autumn Jumbo lottery," says a middle-aged gentleman, "I hope they contain a dream come true."
(Less copy money paid to media contributors)
"This morning, one of my tanka poems was broadcasted on a poetry TV program," says one senior member, "it was the second time for me on the same program in this year." Several other poems written by him were also introduced in some radio programs this year. "It's my tenth year since I started writing poems," he continues, "and each time a piece of my poetry work was broadcasted, I received a small gift for the contribution from NHK Radio." The small gift from the radio station was a 1,000-yen-worth book coupon or a phonecard. "But they stopped paying the copy money suddenly this year," says the senior participant, "they just write their thanks to the contributor informing that the contribution has been introduced in one of their programs." Since the Japan's semipublic broadcasting station is collecting a 24,000-yen fee a year from each TV viewing household, the organization is always under watch by the people whether it wastes its budget for something wrong. "I'm not complaining about losing such a small gift from NHK," he says, "I'm happy enough if my poems are made public through its programs." He also occasionally send a contribution to the Yomiuri newspaper. And when it is accepted for printing, he still receives a book coupon. Yomiuri is a private newspaper company. They may be able to keep the traditional manner. "Yomiuri is also a penny-pincher," says a middle-aged member, "it was only a phonecard my wife got from Yomiuri when she participated in a TV program sometime ago." The Yomiuri TV featured his wife on a 15-minute program as she had been a well-known woman sworder in the local area. For the 15-minute program, her house was visited and occupied for about one hour by TV crews. They also visited the kendo training house to capture her practicing on videotape. "I and my wife thought one telephone card didn't pay those efforts we'd made," he continues, "but still we were happy seeing ourselves on TV." Of course, before the program started to air, he, his wife and children tried to let their relatives and friends know that it would come soon.
(Mad cow disease lands in Japan)
"Last week, we heard shocking news of the first mad cow disease in Japan," says a senior member, "but, since the report was released just one day before the terrorist attack in the United States, the issue was covered up by the big event and there came no follow-up news on the media." These past few days, we have been always with those media reports on the tragedy in New York and Washington. And the local bad news which would have driven people to panic did not show up impressively on TV. "No, you are not correct," says one lady, "on reading the story, people immediately reacted with fear." And meantime, she says, the beef sales dropped very much at the store and the fish and chicken sales picked up instead. "Terrorism in the United States shocked us of course," the lady says, "but the topmost concern of Japanese housewives is now mad cow disease." Before the terrorism impact on the stock exchange market, the share prices of MacDonald's dropped largely as people predicted its burger sales would be very much affected. "On the subject, the official of Ministry of Agriculture first made a false report to the news media," says a middle-aged participant, "they said the cow in a Chiba farm diagnosed as suffering from mad cow disease had been fully incinerated." In fact, however, the cow infected by BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) was processed as bone meal feedstuff that had already been delivered to some chicken farms. "Under the ever-developing global market, Japan could not be isolated from anything dangerous developing in other countries," another participant says, "the bone meal feedstuff had long been imported from Europe and widely used until several years ago in the local farms." There are already more than 100 patients in Europe who developed Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. "Problem with both BSE and C-J diseases is that they have a very long latency period, 2-8 years," says a senior member, "they are a time bomb for both animals and people." Up to now, we don't know how many cows and people have already been infected by prion, the harmful and aggressive protein. We have developed no measure yet to diagnose people whether they have already been infected by prion and they are potential for a C-J disease.
(Stroke counts of Chinese characters for newborn baby's name)
"A couple of weeks ago, we were just about to report the city office of the birth of our first grandson," says a senior participant, "but someone told us the given name we were going to register was ominous according to the fortunetelling stroke count." The stroke count of those Chinese characters used as the name of my grandson was ten. And the auspice of the stroke count 10 predicts the baby would become a gambler. "Because we'd been told by the hospital the baby was a boy," says the senior man, "the name was given to the baby several months ago while he was still prenatal." Parents were trying often speaking to the prenatal baby with that name. Therefore, when he was born, nurses asked the father with the newborn baby in his arms to call him by the name because the baby knew that was his name. "But, if the original name is said to be an ominous one according to many fortunetelling books," the man says, "we had no reason to stick to it." So, he added one more stroke to one of the two Chinese characters of the baby's name. The new name fortunately had the same pronunciation as the original one and the baby will not be confused by his new name. "There will be not so many cases that a grown-up child complains about the given name as the name has long been used since childhood," says a participant, "therefore, parents and grandparents are often not so serious in becoming godfathers and enjoying looking for various options."
(Shinjuku blaze could happen anywhere)
"A few days ago, a building fire in the Kabukicho entertainment district of Shinjuku, Tokyo, took place leaving 44 people dead and three others injured," says a senior member, "and it's said somebody must have set the building aflame." The 44 midnight rakehells killed by the fire were those playing mahjong at the third floor and enjoying drinking in a hostess bar at the fourth floor. They mostly died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Such multipurpose buildings with a floor space below 500 square meters are often violating the Fire Defense Law. "In such buildings," says a middle-aged participant, "the emergency exit is not always organized properly." For example, we also see many such buildings standing side by side and selling electronics gadgets and household appliances in Nipponbashi and Akihabara. "The wise man keeps away from danger," says an aged member, "we shouldn't visit such narrow-mouthed shops, particularly, their upper floors." When we lodge in a hotel that is new and not familiar to us, not so many of us make it a habit to check beforehand where the emergency exit and staircase are.
Newborn babies don't clench their fists)
"Finally, we got our first grandchild last Saturday," says one senior member, "the baby boy was 10-day overdue." On his arrival with the 3.6kg body weight, his mother had to undergo Cesarean section. "Both the mother and child do quite well," says the member, "and to my surprise, my newborn grandson doesn't keep clenching his fists as I have usually imagined a typical baby." These days, babies look sharing no birthpang with their mothers. They look not worried. Their parents are doing well. Babies don't have to quake with fear and clench their fists. "Our baby was taken its soleprints as a token," says the senior man, "and its mother's name was written there on the sole for identification purposes." There are still cases that newborn babies are mixed up at hospitals of birth or even stolen by intruders. "I don't know how the hospital deal with the cord blood of our baby," he says, "today, the cord blood is regarded precious as it contains embryonic stem cells that can be used for gene therapy." Perhaps, the cord blood of newborn babies collected at the hospital of birth is secretly sold to some research institutes where some genetic studies are conducted. "People may soon become aware that the cord blood is precious and more important for the baby than the dried umbilical cord as a token," he continues, "and they will keep the cord blood long time frozen at a supercold temperature." This can be then used to make some effective remedies to cure the potential fatal disease, such as leukemia, Parkinson's disease and failing organs, that might attack the baby in longtime future. There is already a safe-deposit venture company in Japan that will keep long time the cord blood of babies of its clients at cryogenic temperatures although the usage of the blood has not been fully developed technologically.. "So, babies of today have no worry," says one lady, "and they don't have to clench their fists anymore in order to show resolution to face their potential difficulties in life."
(Elderly people start murmuring)
"While Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi got through the critical issue of Yasukuni visit and keeps still a high approval rate by the public," says a senior participant, "the elderly becomes aware they are having a challenging blow to them." Koizumi insists that people can get over the current economic situation at a deadlock by only taking a bitter tablet. And the first group taking the bitter medicine is the elderly. "It looks not so many aged people are aware," he continues, "their bill of the monthly premium for the nursing-care insurance is doubled from October." This is a quiet, but originally stipulated, shift by the local government from the one-year temporary measure that asked the insurant to pay about 50 percent of the calculated amount. "I'm sure if the present cabinet were not so popular," says the senior member, "the elderly would have kept being treated better." Generally, aged people could fulfill their wishes because politicians judge the age group most influential for the election result. Before election campaigns, therefore, it is usual that politicians become eager to cater to the elderly offering some sweet political programs for such faithful voters. "On the last Upper House election, however," says one lady, "Koizumi didn't promise anything sweet for the aged." And he won the election. To him, the elderly is not under a taboo. And people of the age group are only guys in the country who can save the ailing economy with their huge assets just idling in the bank. "The retiree is no more possible to enjoy an affluent lifestyle," says an aged participant, "they must now pay more for the health insurance premium either." They will not get favored tax treatment any longer because of their age. Old people here with the world longest life expectancy should now look for ways how to spend the rest of life under a compressed financial condition.
("Parasite singles" throw a shadow over Japan's future)
Several weeks ago, the New York Times featured a social phenomenon in Japan. More than half of Japanese women are still single by 30 - compared with about 37 percent of American women - and mostly all of them live at home with Mom and Dad. Being so-called "Parasite Singles," they pay no rent and do no housework. With their average annual income, about 3 million yen, they seem to be Japan's leading consumers. "I don't live at home with my parents," says one lady, "I'm living alone away from my home, and I still enjoy the single life very much." Remaining single makes sense for most women these days whether they live at home with parents or not. "Maybe, I'm a parasite single," says another lady, "but I do some housework." Of course, she knows she is determined to look after her parents in the future when they get older. "My information is just like the article," says a Polish visitor, "a 27-year-ol daughter of my neighbor's in Osaka does nothing housework at all. She doesn't even know how to run the washing machine." "Why women are only spotlighted?" One lady says, "there are also many single boys who do nothing household tasks at all. They stay at home with a clear conscience." Japan makes now efforts to establish a gender-free society. Ladies say it is not fare that people focus only on women. "Projected population decrease due to the world lowest birthrate will certainly hit Japanese economy in the future," says a middle-aged participant, "the aging society must first tackle the issue of social security which is mostly to be financed by young active generations." Japanese young men and women do not marry, or marry late, or express no intention to have no children. Some say a smaller population is not always bad for Japan as the country's food supply and natural resources could afford to support only half of its today's population. "But it's true that we could sustain the world second biggest economic power," says one participant, "because we had worked hard to earn money on the international trading." And this is the only way for Japan's 126 million population to survive the short local supply of foods and natural resources. "The wind will change," says a senior member, "there are increasing number of women who wish to have kids in life whether they marry or not." And the ever-developing medical aid enables more women to become mobys, mother-old, baby-young. "I don't care whether I'm a single mother," one lady says, "and modern technology will help me have a child anyway." The recent success story in Japan of a 60-year-old woman giving birth after her menopause will further encourage those women who plan to have children at a ripe age.
(Father must do their duties)
About a year ago, novelist Shintaro Ishihara wrote a commentary on the father's duty in family. "I think Ishihara's idea is old-fashioned," says a lady, "today, no ordinary father can tyrannize his family members." It is already an old image that, during the dinner get-together at home, a father bursting out in anger on some trivial mistakes of his wife or children kicks up the low dinning table to show how much he is displeased. Children in those days scared their father and thought he ruled utterly all family members. And, of course with the power, children thought their father was strong enough to protect them against enemies. "It was almost an everyday affair for fathers to chastise their children with some bodily punishments," says a senior member, "but today, fathers simply stand on the sidelines." Now, since fathers pretended to be busy outside as workaholic, mothers dominated the household matters and they became also responsible for training of children. But mothers could not do properly in disciplining kids as father did. And mothers also work out of home these days. "More mothers also work in Europe today," says the Polish visitor, "and fathers share the housework, but still fathers are more scared by children." And European fathers definitely spend weekend together with all family members. "In the gender equal society under promotion by the Japanese government, role demarcation at home between mothers and fathers is getting unclear," says one lady, "people think gender-free means both men and women do household chores and child rearing equally." It is still an open question here who must be most responsible for training of children. Are they fathers, mothers, school teachers or neighborhood watchers? "One reason why Japanese father lost their authority at home is the nationwide introduction of the system about 20 years ago for companies to pay a salary by means of a bank transfer," says a member, "then, the father's earnings are immediately remitted to the family's savings account which is generally controlled by mothers." In Europe, this is different. Fathers there keep generally their own bank accounts for the salary deposit and mother do not have access to them. Mothers receive cash for household expenditure from fathers periodically.
(Surveillance cameras peek at privacy)
Surveillance cameras in public places are quickly becoming the preferred security tools of law enforcement agencies and private companies. The rapid proliferation of such public surveillance systems has privacy advocates worried. "There are chances such monitored information is misused, or causes a privacy issue beyond its original purpose," says one young participant, "sometime ago, for example, police were sued for sending the complainant's family a picture taken by one of the traffic surveillance cameras as evidence for traffic violation, which however showed the driver being together with his girl friend on the car." Police lost the case for the careless disclosure of privacy information. "But still those surveillance cameras can give police effective leads for capturing criminals," says a middle-aged member, "and they are also working for determent of criminal cases." Knowing they are monitored by the surveillance camera, those potential criminals will be prevented from doing bad things. "Technology will further develop," says a senior member, "although people tend to become more independent and individual in the modern society, their privacy would be hardly protected against the invasion of unknown attackers." And a dangerous outcome is that such technology is utilized by the big brother for establishing tyranny. People must be cautious and ready to apply brakes to any developments that will invade their privacy.
(Yasukuni visited by Prime Minister)
"If Koizumi visits Yasukuni on August 15," says one middle-aged member, "I'll also travel up to Tokyo on that day to see him pay homage at the shrine." He says he feels no bad impression about Koizumi's visiting the shrine where those Class-A war criminals are also enshrined in addition to the general war dead. "The procedure of Tokyo Tribunal of War Criminals was against international law," he insists, "there should be no war criminals." Unless those war leaders commit an inhumane crime such as holocaust, they should not be punished simply for making war, he says. "OK, I took your message," says a senior participant, "but it's not a question whether those war leaders should have been punished by the tribunal. Isn't it more important for us to ask a question whether the leaders' war was reviewed in depth by their local people?" In Japan, younger generations have been not learning what was The Pacific War officially and conceptually. Then, various interpretations of the war, ranging from the right-winger's to the left-winger's, prevail even today. "A recent poll indicates 70 percent of young respondents are not against Koizumi's idea on Yasukuni," says one lady, "I don't know whether these people know exactly what the past war means." Most of them are just the groupy of Koizumi and always accept whatever he insists. "I think Koizumi shouldn't pay respect to those Class-A war criminals at the shrine," says a senior participant, "it was definitely their fault that they didn't stop the war before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed and Stalin's last-minute invasion took place." If Emperor and those war leaders accepted Potsdam Declaration two weeks earlier, Japan would have saved large number of war victims and 650,000 prisoners of war taken to detention in a Siberian labor camp. "In a sense, however, it's good people are divided on the issue," says an aged member, "I hope Japanese could keep the present healthy opinion mix." We must be different from ourselves 70 years ago and wouldn't be driven stupidly to believe in the dictator's philosophy again.
(Hook-up culture benefits boys?)
Casual sexual encounters are a big part of American college life. So-called hook-up culture prevails on most college campuses. When a girl and a guy get together for a physical encounter, they don't necessarily expect anything further. Boys and girls easily meet and quickly change their partners. It looks American college women want to meet a future husband at college. "In Japan, most college women don't see boyfriends as their future husband,"says one young lady, "they want to see a future husband at worksites several years later." If they marry, they like to choose their partners older than themselves. They think such men are more matured and financially stable than those boyfriends of their age group. "At the same time, however, sexual encounters are also rampant among college students," she continues, "but, of course, women are not only emotional but careful about their future." For example, if their boyfriends are reluctant to use a contraceptive, they will definitely say to their partners, "I'll accept it, if you would bear a lifetime responsibility for our future baby and myself." Most boys wilt under the pressure and follow their partners' instruction. "Mine was a cherry orchard, women's college," says one lady, "and, in those days, we were mostly looking for boyfriends from some prestigious universities." Physical encounters rarely occurred among college students in those days. "Though we were enough sensitive to such romantic happenings," says a senior member, "the social norms didn't allow us to become reckless." Is the current sexual culture among youngsters going to harm the future society?
"This hot summer, many people died of complications from heat stroke," says a middle-aged participant, "the other day, I went for a climb to Mt. Hakusan and I was really struck by heat." Despite his expectation, the 2,700-meter high mountain could not offer a cool weather. On climbing, he got up a much sweat. He was nearly dehydrated. And he suddenly felt a chill in the strong sunshine. "This is the typical symptom of heat stoke," he continues, "then, together with my three other colleagues, I rested in the shade of a tree on the hillside, drank some mineral water and cooled my skin with a wet towel ." After a while, he became himself again. To avoid getting heatstroke or sunstroke, we must recognize first we have the heat, we have to force fluids down on the skin and we use ice towels to keep our body cool on the outside so they don't sweat too much. The higher the humidity, the less evaporation there is for perspiration, and our skin doesn't cool off, so our body heats up a lot quicker. The result could be fatal if there's too much physical exertion at the wrong time of the day. "My three other colleagues, all ladies of my age, had no heat-related problems," he further says, "they were all slim and limber, I was the only guy being an overweight climber." The more weight we are carrying, the more we are going to have to be on top of making sure we have adequate amounts of fluids, and also not getting depleted of minerals, such as salts. Heatstroke is more dangerous for little children and dogs. When we walk them, their heads are much nearer to the extremely heated surface of the walkway. They get heatstroke much more quickly. "Anyway, besides the heat, I enjoyed Mt. Hakusan very much," he says, "of course, it was cool at night, we enjoyed gazing upon the starry heavens and the view of various alignments of the mountains next morning." Unfortunately, he had to tackle another exercise on the way back from the summit. The mountain trail downhill was very steep for him. Then, he broke into a cold sweat this time.
(Ionized alkaline water has health benefit?)
"I'm wondering," a senior member says, "whether we should buy a water-purifying device for our kitchen." The system costing him about 200,000 yen generates ionized alkaline water. And the ionized water is believed to be beneficial to our health. "There are opinions that don't speak in favor of using such a machine," he continues, "like many other health appliances, such as hanging bars and home massagers, people will quickly get tired of using regularly the system." Of course such systems require periodical care by the user for the proper maintenance to keep them working as originally designed. This is not always done well in general. "For example," one lady says, "electrodes of the electrolytic ionization system have a usable period, 3-5 years." After that time, the output from the system is no more an ionized alkaline water. But some people still use such water believing that the magic is still in the machine. "I feel no problem drinking the water from the faucet," says a middle-aged participant, "I don't understand why people have become concerned about the water quality and buy the bottled water so much in the supermarket these days." The tap water cost us only 0.3 yen per liter while the bottled water in the shop has a price tag of 100 yen per liter. "People have become fanatic also about the well water," says one lady, "number of historical spots with the springwater good for drinking and cooking are visited by many people who form a long queue at the well for filling their plastic canteens with the springwater." They say they can make a pot of tea far better with such a well water in terms of the taste and color. It is also good for cooking rice and vegetables. "But, still, no scientific or epidemiological study convinces us that a bottle of such special water as eau mine'rale and ionized alkaline water is good for health," says a middle-aged participant, "and that the Japanese tap water is harming people's health." Perhaps, people are wasting money for something not so much valuable.
(Many turn out seclusive)
"One million people are estimated to be so-called social withdrawal in Japan," says a senior member, "and they pen up themselves in their private rooms for more than six months refusing to make contact with anybody." It seems such people are increasing in the age bracket, 15-40. And they are mostly supported by their family members as so-called parasite single. They may be diagnosed as suffering from a sort of nervous breakdown but certainly not any mental diseases such as schizophrenia. "This illustrates how Japan has become rich," says a middle-aged participant, "these guys can have their own places at home for hideaway." There are triggers for these people to become seclusive, such as bullying and hazing at school or worksite. "Most of them could come back to a normal life," says one lady, "after a certain period of seclusion." From the situation, some develop further into schizophrenia and commit serious crimes or suicide. "But it's difficult for other people to extend any help to such depressed persons," says one lady, "the reason is individual and cannot be identified generally." These sufferers, often being geniuses and talented people, must overcome the hardship by themselves. And, in many cases, they become giants later in the art and literary circles. "Everyone feels depressed sometimes," says an aged participant, "we become anthrophobia and claustrophilia whenever we face an emotional barrier." For most people, however, they just place such a pain behind, take another subject and already forget what has worried them. "Social withdrawal is less likely to be observed among the poor," another participant says, "this is evidently one of the diseases of civilization."
(Beijing nominated for 2008 Olympics)
"It's funny," says a senior participant, "almost nobody in the country, as well as even no general Osaka people, feels regret for the result that Osaka was not nominated for the 2008 Olympic Games." On July 13 in Moscow, Osaka, among four other competing cities, Beijing, Paris, Toronto and Istanbul, was eliminated in the first round of voting for the Games, picking up only six votes from the 105-member International Olympic Committee. Osaka Mayor says whether or not Osaka should bid again for the 2012 Games depends on a variety of political and economic conditions. "In the hosting competition, the Chinese government very much supported Beijing and drove a nationwide campaign," says a middle-aged member, "while here, people were not excited and the government had made not much efforts to achieve the nomination." This is same in the case 20 years ago that Nagoya attempted to host the 1988 Games and lost to Seoul. There was already no such public frenzy that people experienced some 40 years ago for the Tokyo Olympics. "If we look at China today," says one lady, "it's just like Japan 40 years ago." China plans to grow in its economic power at 7-8 percent every year and double its GDP by 2010. This is exactly what Japan tried 40 years ago, implementing the growth plan, so-called income doubling program. "China will grow dramatically during the next two decades," says a senior member, "and its GDP will top Japan's in less than 20 years, or much more quickly, if Japan continues with the current economic depression." Anyway, China that has one fifth the world population deserves hosting the second Olympic Games in the 21st century. "And this will work for stabilization of some political tensions related to China," says a lady, "the country will become careful not to cause any international trouble." China will avoid the case of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 which was boycotted by many countries who were very much against Moscow's invasion into Afghanistan at that time. "So, we'll have peaceful Taiwan for the time being," says one member, "and China will initiate some peaceful settlement over North Korea."
(Early childhood English education)
"I was astonished," says one senior participant, "by learning that there were many young mothers who would send their little babies to a special English class." Today, catching the public interest in early childhood language education, some English schools are accepting very young children, even 6 to 12-month-old babies. Such chaps couldn't voice even a baby talk. Each 40-minute class, for example, gives fidgety baby students, of course, held by their mothers, a specially designed lesson using toys and flash cards. "people think English and the cyber literacy very important for the junior to survive the modern society," says one lady, "and young mothers would like naturally their children to acquire such abilities at infancy." Several neuroscientist insist an early childhood education develops the advantageous functional map on the baby's brain that can deal with more than two different languages fluently in future. "But what will happen for such children later?" says a senior member, "They will quickly lose their ability unless they keep in touch with the second language." In fact, there are few opportunities in the country to use English practically in the daily life. English could not be high profile words in Japan as the population of English speaking residents is very small, far less than one percent. There is no nationwide news media that uses English exclusively. "People are hardly immersed in an English environment here," says a middle-aged member, "particularly, we have not any opportunity to talk in depth in English about complicated topics." Whether the infantile preschool education is introduced or not, the country will still face some language barrier for its global activities in the future, unless Japan would internationalize its local system and culture and becomes more flexible and adaptable to anything unnational.